What the text means has to come from what the text meant.
Sometimes we are too quick to jump to application in our preaching without even understanding what the text even meant in its original context. What the text means for us today is contingent upon understanding what the text meant in its original context. When we bypass this, or give it only cursory attention, we not only do an injustice to the text, we fail our people by failing to explain adequately the meaning of the text.
For example, I am preaching through Paul’s Epistle to Philemon right now. In the opening verses (1-7, but especially 4-7), Paul talks about Philemon’s dynamic and exemplary Christian character. He explains how Philemon had faith in Christ that influenced how he lives and that Philemon’s faith brought joy and encouragement to the saints, especially Paul.
I anticipated a possible objection from the congregation, namely, how could someone be such a good Christian and own slaves? This is a reasonable question and one that must be address.
Without going into detail, I explained the differences between slavery in the Greco-Roman world and the antebellum American South. But then I let this lead me to my point about this conundrum: Philemon has an opportunity to be counter-cultural in the best sense. I didn’t excuse Philemon but I tried to put the hearers in Philemon’s situation. Philemon has every right in light of his culture and under the law to demand the return of Onesimus and to exact punishment for Onesimus’ wrongs against him. But Paul wants Philemon to demonstrate the love and grace of the Kingdom by exercising forgiveness, the same “good things” that Philemon has himself received from God (v. 6). This is what the text meant.
My application (what the text means) was that we, too live counter-culturally when we live out lives of grace, love, and forgiveness when the world has different standards of behavior. I spelled this out using several examples drawn from everyday life.
Notice three results of preaching the text this way.
(1) By exploring the original context, I was not only true to the text, I was able to explain the background of the NT, information that will be helpful for the congregation in understanding other NT texts.
(2) My application was more grace-driven and Christ-centered than if I had simply preached against slavery or talked about human trafficking or something similar.
(3) I am able to demonstrate clearly how the application came from the text. I drew a line directly from the situation of the text to the situation of the hearer. This means that I avoid any challenge that I have read into the text or placed a legalistic burden on those who heard.
One of my foundational rules for preaching is “Preach the text.” If you don’t do the work to understand and explain the text, then if you manage to properly apply the text, it will only be by accident.